Analyzing Surah 108 Al-Kawthar: Can You Produce a Surah like it?


In response to a question as to why Allah the Exalted challenged us to produce a surah like those in the Quran, giving the shortest surah 108 as an example of a simple surah anyone could write, I offer the following analysis of that surah showing a closer look at its inimitable presentation:

Surat Al-Kawthar Analysis

إِنَّا أَعْطَيْنَاكَ الْكَوْثَرَ

Indeed, We have granted you, [O Muhammad], al-Kawthar. (Al-Kawthar 108:1)

فَصَلِّ لِرَبِّكَ وَانْحَرْ

So pray to your Lord and sacrifice [to Him alone]. (108:2)

إِنَّ شَانِئَكَ هُوَ الْأَبْتَرُ

Indeed, your enemy is the one cut off. (108:3)

This surah consists of 3 ayat, but as we shall show, packs much power and meaning into its 11 words and 43 letters.

The sum of the digits of its number, 108, is 9, which is a significant number in itself and represents, in the “infinitive” form of a number, both giving and cutting off, the very dynamic theme of this surah. It also is represented by, in terms of months in the Hijri calendar, the 9th month of Ramadan, the number of repentance and returning to Allah. And returning to Allah can be represented as a circle, whose number is 360, the number of degrees in a circle, and of course this too is divisible by 9. 

Analyzing the Numbers

Counting the Arabic words and letters:

  1. 3 words – 16 letters – 10 unique ltrs 
  2. 4 words – 12 letters –  4 unique ltrs 
  3. 4 words – 15 letters –  3 unique ltrs 

Totals: 11 words (counting waw as a word) – 43 letters – 17 unique – all primes – also the sum of digits of words and letters, 11 (2) + 43 (7) = 2+7=9. If one adds all these elements together, the result is 71, the reverse of the number of unique letters, 17, both numbers being prime.

Total words+letters = 54 (6•9) (2•3^3)

108 (surah number) = 2•54! (Prime factorization= 2^2 • 3^3: nice-looking number!) Of course, this means it too is a multiple of 9: 9 times 12 to be precise, two very significant numbers. 

  1. Words+letters=19 – sum of digits is 10
  2. Words+letters =16 – sod 7
  3. Words+letters =19 – sod 10

Note the symmetry! 

The difference in sum of words+letters between each of the two outer ayat and the inner aya is 3 each (19-16=3). This is also true for the sums of digits (10-7=3). Note also the total of words+letters for this surah is a factor (x2) of the actual surah number, 108, as shown above. As discussed below, this surah contains 3 ayat, each of which contains 3 parts, making 9 total parts divided by meaning. The total number of words is 11, or 9+2. If one multiplies these addends, the product is 18, a number which, like the surah number itself, adds to 9 using the same digits 1 and 8 in that order. 

16 in the center = 4•4 or 2^4 – this provides a “stabilizing yet dynamic” center in ways that require more study than can fit in this space. 

Commentary on the Meaning

Nine is the number associated with katheer or “much/ many” from whose root kawthar or “bounty” is derived. This is in numerology, but also mathematically it is the largest digit/ base number in base ten, the number system used in the Quran and in most human civilizations (but not all; the Mayans used base 20, whose largest base number is 19). And 9 is featured in this surah which represents Allah’s bounty in religion/ life. 

  1. The first aya tells Prophet Mohammad that Allah has given him Al-Kawthar, which, unlike katheer which would mean “much” or simply “bountifully,” means the infinitive of bounty, using the prefix “al-.” It’s like an absolute bounty not just to say “I gave you very much,” for example but like “I gave you the bounty itself.” What exactly does this mean? Its meaning is expressed in numbers. Symbolic numbers. Nine represents that sort of infinitive (math being in a sense naturally symbolic – numbers have relationships and qualities as any mathematician could tell you) of “bounty.” The aya is in 3 parts using 3 words: Certainly (1) We have granted you (2) Bounty itself/ plenty (3). In the central section is “We”, representing Allah the Exalted. 
  2. The second aya reveals three parts as well using 4 words: So pray salat (connect to Allah) (1) to your Lord (2) and sacrifice (the 3rd section here contains two words: I count the letter waw as a separate word meaning “and” per certain scholars with sound reasons). Note here, “your Lord” referring to Allah the Exalted, is in the center of 2nd part. The first part is to connect; the third part is a cutting off from the self by sacrifice. The weight of an extra word “and” is on the final “section” because to sacrifice means to give up something of oneself which is difficult. “Your Lord” being in the center illustrates graphically that Allah must be the center of the prophet’s life as, following his example, of our lives as well, and the recipient of salat which connects us to Him as well as of sacrifice, to give/ spend in charity what is beyond our own needs, also be willing to sacrifice our selves in His Way, contributing actively to the infinitive “bounty” or al-Kawthar. That’s a fairly profound meaning for 4 words, one of which is the single letter meaning “and.”
  3. The final third aya takes its central message of “cutting off” from the last word of aya 2, sacrifice. Notice how using the two words here, shani’aka which means “who takes you as an enemy” which is a kind of pursuit of cutting off, becomes abtar which means literally “cut off.” So the words are arranged like this, again in 3 parts: certainly (1), a word which emphasizes the fact presented in this aya as absolute truth as it did in aya 1, who takes you as an enemy (who wants to cut you off) (2), is himself cut off. (A slightly more literal translation than above.) Now this is a surprise ending. In the first two ayat, Allah the Exalted was the center of the 3 parts, whereas here Mohammad’s enemy is in the center. Because this is the aya of “cutting off.” It shows us that “cutting off” one’s enemies can also be a kind of bounty from Allah, an assurance of protection!

To summarize for a moment, we have here 3 ayat, each of which is tripartite. Three ayat, times three parts, equals nine, which represents the infinitive of bounty. It shows us the precision of this surah.

So Allah’s cutting off of the enemy is the completion of his bounty, just as the sacrifice of ourselves is the completion of our giving, in aya 2 where “your Lord” is indeed at the center of this whole surah. Because bounty of course is about giving and in the Quran, reciprocity is a powerful theme. Reciprocity for the enemy who would cut off Mohammad the prophet from his message reaching the people, is to be himself the one cut off. The extra word in the third part of the third aya, “himself” or hoa, emphasizes and gives weight to the fact that he is the recipient of his own evil aim. Like a boomerang, the law of reciprocity gives it back to him. The whole dynamic of give vs.cut is the heart of this surah

Note the juxtapositions of meanings here:

  • Comparing the meaning of al-kawthar, the infinitive of bounty/plenty with cutting off, the active opposite of giving/ bounty
  • In the center is Allah, the center of our lives, to/for whom we must pray and sacrifice – our cutting off from our own bounty in sacrifice as charity and struggle against oppression (especially in society) results in Allah’s causing those who seek to harm us to be cut off from succeeding in their plans/ desires.
  • This is addressed to prophet Mohammad, showing Allah’s support of him, but it is also for all believers, submitters to Allah, to take encouragement. Because anyone who struggles against oppression in particular is highly likely to have enemies from among the oppressors. Just try speaking out against Israel to find out, if interested.
  • Use of the number 9 to augment the meaning: you can see from the arrangement and design of the entire surah that it focuses on bounty/ giving not just as the things being given, but the giving itself. One of the famous properties of number 9 is that any product of 9 has a sum of digits that also equals or is a multiple of 9. And many other fascinating properties in this article or this one debunking it (sort of). There is a special relationship between a number one less than its base, making 19 special to base 20 as 9 is special to base 10. But there are even more connections to numerology, sacred geometry, and other religious texts, as this site discusses (some to be taken with a grain of salt).
  • In Islam, the number 9 is associated with Ramadan, the 9th Hijri month, the month of repentance and return to Allah and also the most celestial month, a fitting representation for a number with special properties, showing us how to balance giving with cutting off, in the surahs that follow it, dealing with 109, the deniers Al-Kafiroon, being given the ultimate gift of victory in Al-Nasr 110, and the final “cutting off” of Prophet Mohammad’s enemy, Abu Lahab in al-Masad 111.

So yes, this is a small surah, the shortest of them all, showing us that Allah’s bounty is immense, yet can be found in the smallest places. Like, say, quantum mechanics. 

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